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Mental Health and Criminal Defense 

Korey Leslie, Attorney-At-Law, LLC Feb. 27, 2024

Handcuffs and gavelMany individuals involved in the criminal justice system suffer from mental health disorders. These are often complex conditions that can influence behavior and decision-making processes. In some cases, these disorders might contribute to actions that lead to criminal charges. 

However, it's important to remember that every case is unique. We don't make assumptions or generalizations about individuals based on their mental health status. Instead, we take the time to understand each client's specific circumstances and how their mental health may have affected their actions. 

Mental Health and the Legal System

The legal system can be a challenging space for individuals with mental health disorders. At our firm, we're committed to ensuring that our clients' rights are protected and that they're treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. We're also aware that the legal system has protocols in place to address mental health matters. These protocols include: 

  • Competency Evaluations: A thorough assessment to determine if an individual has the mental capacity to stand trial. 

  • Mental Health Courts: Specialized court systems that focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment for individuals with mental health issues. 

  • Diversion Programs: Alternatives to incarceration that provide mental health treatment and support services. 

  • Insanity Defense: A legal defense that may be used if an individual is found to be legally insane at the time of committing a crime. 

  • Mandatory Treatment Laws: Requirements for individuals with certain mental health conditions to receive treatment as a part of their sentence or conditional release. 

These protocols aim to ensure fair treatment and justice for all parties involved. Yet, they can be difficult to comprehend without proper guidance. That's where we come in — to help our clients understand the process and their rights. 

Common Mental Health Disorders

Many types of mental health disorders are prevalent among individuals in the criminal justice system. These include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Each of these conditions has its own unique characteristics and potential impacts on behavior. 

It's important to note that having a mental health disorder does not automatically equate to criminal behavior. However, if left untreated or poorly managed, these disorders can contribute to situations that may lead to criminal charges.  

Mental Health as a Defense

Raising mental health as a defense in the legal system is a nuanced approach, often requiring expert testimony and detailed psychological evaluation. This defense states that due to a diagnosed mental health condition, the individual did not possess the state of mind that is typically required to commit a crime, known as "mens rea," or did not understand the nature or wrongfulness of the act. Some key points regarding this defense include: 

  • Insanity Plea: The most well-known mental health defense, where the individual claims they were insane at the time of the crime and unable to distinguish right from wrong or understand the consequences of their actions. 

  • Diminished Capacity: This defense does not argue insanity but rather that the mental health state of the individual at the time of the crime impacted their judgment or intent, leading to a lesser culpability. 

  • Mental Health Diversion: In some jurisdictions, defendants with mental health issues can have their cases diverted out of the traditional criminal system and into a treatment-based program if it's believed that treatment would prevent future unlawful behavior. 

Legal standards for these defenses, such as the M'Naghten Rule, the Durham Rule, and the Model Penal Code, vary by jurisdiction. The M'Naghten Rule, for instance, focuses on an individual's ability to know right from wrong, while the Model Penal Code test considers both the ability to appreciate the criminality of an action and to conform actions to the requirements of the law. 

Laws surrounding these defenses include strict requirements for proof, often demanding a high level of evidence from the defense. Success rates for these defenses are relatively low, and when successful, the outcome may involve a mandatory treatment program or commitment to a psychiatric facility instead of traditional incarceration.  

Proving Mental Health Claims

To find the link between mental health and a criminal offense, it's essential to compile evidence. This typically involves: 

  • gathering medical histories 

  • securing expert testimony from mental health professionals 

  • possibly obtaining character witnesses who can attest to an individual's mental state before and after the offense 

Documentation of psychiatric evaluations, treatment records, and witness accounts can collectively create a clearer picture of how mental health impacted the accused's behavior. 

Sentencing and Rights of Prisoners With Mental Health Disorders

Individuals with mental health disorders have specific rights when it comes to sentencing and while in custody. These rights include: 

  • Right to Mental Health Care: Prisoners have a right to access mental health services comparable to the standards of care in the community. This includes assessment, diagnosis, and a suitable treatment plan provided by qualified mental health professionals. 

  • Humane Treatment: Incarcerated individuals with mental health issues should be treated humanely and not subjected to any form of harsh treatment or punishment due to their condition. Segregation and isolation practices are particularly scrutinized to prevent exacerbating mental health issues. 

  • Accommodations for Disability: Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), prisons are required to provide accommodations for inmates with mental health disabilities so they can access the prison's programs and facilities. 

  • Confidentiality of Medical Records: Like any individual receiving medical care, prisoners have the right to confidentiality regarding their mental health treatment and records, subject to necessary exceptions for safety and security. 

  • Protection from Abuse: Prisoners with mental health disorders are to be protected from abuse, harassment, and other forms of victimization, which could further harm their mental wellbeing. 

  • Due Process in Administrative Segregation: If a prisoner with a mental health disorder is considered for administrative segregation (solitary confinement), they are entitled to due process, which includes a fair hearing where the impact of their mental health can be considered. 

These rights are designed to ensure that they receive appropriate care and treatment. 

The Importance of a Knowledgeable Defense Attorney

Having a knowledgeable defense attorney is crucial in cases involving mental health issues. At Korey Leslie, Attorney-At-Law, LLC, we bring a wealth of experience and a deep understanding of mental health and criminal law. You deserve professional support, so get in touch with us today for support.